The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

Edward Hirsch’s “Leningrad (1941-1943)” describes in vivid and sometimes hallucinatory images the horror of the German blockade of that city during World War II. The blockade lasted 526 days, but the actual assault on the city continued much longer. Hirsch tells his story in seven sections of six three-line stanzas each, unrhymed, with almost no caesuras or end-stopped lines. Sharon Olds’s poem “Leningrad Cemetery, Winter 1941” is a moving companion piece, though much shorter, on the same subject.

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The poem opens with a cacophony of animal sounds in section 1, as of zoo creatures gone mad from bombardment, such a nightmare that “we knew it had begun in earnest.” The chaos of animal terror—of “wild dogs/ Howling like dirges,” “three mad sables roving through the streets,” and “polar bears wailing”—climaxes in a chilling stanza that describes “the sky speaking/ German,” “the night wearing a steel helmet,/ And the moon slowly turning into a swastika.” These menacing images establish the historical reality and foreshadow the unspeakable events immediately following.

Harrison Salisbury’s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad (1969) tells the whole story in almost unbearable detail, devoting one chapter, “The Blood-Red Clouds,” to the destruction of the Badayev food warehouses, and although Hirsch does not name them it is obvious that his section 2 dramatizes the Badayev event as he speaks of the “crumbling wooden depots of food/ Climbing in swollen clouds into the sky.” Sections 3 and 4 mourn the human misery of nights in cold rooms during the 1941-1942 winter of record-setting low temperatures and of “days when dying will seem as/ Easy as sitting down in a warm, comfortable/ Overstuffed chair and going back to sleep.” The sick endure in hospitals with no heat or light, and “The bodies keep piling up in the corridor.”

Salisbury tells of an admiral who gave his leather briefcase to a starving woman, who returned several days later with a dish of meat jelly made from the briefcase. In Hirsch’s section 5, this becomes “A thin jelly made of leather straps.” Hirsch’s references to eating dogs and cats “without disgust” are corroborated by Salisbury, who adds that after the siege kittens brought high prices in the convalescing city, eager for the recovery of warm, human values. The final triplet of section 5 alludes to the cannibalism that Salisbury describes in the degraded Haymarket section of the city: “But I won’t gouge at another human body;/ I won’t eat the sweet breasts of a murdered/ Woman, or the hacked thighs of a dying man.”

In Salisbury’s account, a stock of cottonseed cake meant to be burned in ships’ furnaces was heated to high temperatures to neutralize its poisons and all four thousand tons of it added to the bread rations. Hirsch speaks in section 6 of “Cellulose and cottonseed cakes and dry meal dust” as standard fare. One of Salisbury’s photos depicts a woman pulling a sheet-wrapped corpse on a child’s sled, a common occurrence commemorated in Hirsch’s lines “And then one day the bodies started to appear/ Piled on the bright sleds of little children.” Hirsch’s “scent of turpentine hanging in the frosty air” is explained by Salisbury’s note that the cemetery-bound trucks loaded with corpses were all drenched with turpentine. Hirsch ends his elegy for the Leningrad victims with the only words available to the survivors: “Somehow we lived.”

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

Hirsch’s seven sections are generally discrete in their subjects but cohere in a unity of impression, and the enjambed triplets carry a smooth flow of imagery and rhythm. The seven sections roughly follow the course of the ordeal, with the destruction of the food warehouses, the ensuing hunger and cold, the increasing desperation marked by the burning of books and furniture and the eating of human flesh, through to the final image of the scraping away of the “dead flesh” of their death-in-life experience. The only narrator identified is the “we” that speaks for the survivors in honor of their dead.

No one metrical foot prevails, but anapests carry much of the pulse of sound, as in “Howling like dirges,” “screeching like children,” “Careening around,” and “smashing their cages”—all from section 1. Moreover, although feminine endings are not as dominant in succeeding stanzas, of the eighteen lines in section 1, thirteen end with unstressed syllables, nicely complementary to the many anapests scattered throughout the lines. The poem’s fourth line—“It began with the shrieking of peacocks”—illustrates the deft use of both the anapest and the feminine ending, and perhaps the best summary of Hirsch’s metrics is that he has a superb ear for rhythm and phonetics. Stanzas picked at random always yield alliteration and assonance. Section 2, stanza 4, describes the burning of the food storehouses:

It was like seeing hundreds of waves ofBlood rolling over the city at dusk and thenHanging in heavy layers under the stars.

Assonance is heavy in “hundreds,” “Blood,” “dusk,” and “under,” while “hundreds,” “Hanging,” and “heavy” alliterate. As a final example, the first triplet of section 4 reveals strong sibilance in “So,” “must,” “survive,” “must,” “sick,” “civilians,” “shiver,” and “stretchers.”

The imagery of the panicked animals in section 1 suggests a mad, surrealistic scene entirely appropriate to the brutal vignettes from Hieronymous Bosch that follow. The “stomach of the city,” with its “charred/ Sugar and fresh meats,” catches in brilliant ambiguity the starvation facing the populace, and the “old man who saw his own small intestine/ Drifting like a balloon over his wife’s head” suffers a vision straight from Salvador Dalí.

Some of the images are emotionally exhausting. In section 4,

A red soldier tears his mouth from a bandageAnd announces to a young nurse, ‘Darling,Tanks are what we need now, beautiful tanks,Beloved tanks rolling over the barren fieldsAnd playing their music in the pink sky.’

Section 7 mourns the “soldier cradling a kneecap in his palms” and the “children watching the soft red fluids/ Of their intestines flowing through their fingers.”

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